Understanding the Principle of Least Privilege

Understanding the Principle of Least Privilege

With the number of high-profile and catastrophic cybersecurity breaches seeming to grow daily, it’s time for organizations of all sizes to rethink their approach to security.

The best approach right now is the zero-trust security model. With the zero-trust security model, there is controlled and managed access to applications, file servers and networks.

There are a few critical elements that work together in the zero trust model.

First, there need to be strict password policies and multi-factor authentication. Every device should be managed, and networks and locations should be known as trusted or denied. There is also the need for least privilege access.

The entire goal of zero trust is to look at cybersecurity in a very different way.

It’s no longer about trusting what’s within the network inherently. Zero trust doesn’t let any device access the network unless it’s properly authenticated, including one connecting from within.

As was touched on, the principle of least privilege is an important part of zero trust, and the following are things to know.

The Basics of Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege or POLP requires that every user, application, and service has the permissions needed to do their work and nothing more than that. It’s one of the most critical things for system and network security.

The privilege term in least privilege refers to being authorized to move past certain security blocks.

With least privilege, there is an enforcement of the most minimal level of user rights that an individual can possibly need to do their job or perform their role.

With the implementation of the principle of least privilege, there’s a reduced potential for attackers to access critical systems or data using someone’s account who’s lower-level. The POLP approach can also contain a compromise to where it began, and it can keep it from affecting the entire system.

The Benefits

There are a number of important benefits that come with POLP. These include:

  • The environment has fewer liabilities. If a user accidentally for example reconfigures an important part of the network, then it can lead to huge problems. When admin rights are restricted to only a few accounts instead of being available to all end-users, it reduces the potential for errors.
  • Using POLP shrinks the attack surface, so there are fewer risks and better network performance.
  • If harm does occur through an error or breach, least privilege narrows down how much damage can be done.
  • When an organization takes the time to reduce potential problems with perimeter security, then it makes data more secure, and it also improves audit capabilities. Businesses and organizations have more oversight and control in their monitoring of activity.
  • If there is a security incident when investigators perform an audit, they can do so more efficiently, and they can narrow their focus.
  • If malware infects a system, as was indirectly touched on above, it can be contained to the entry point with principles of least privilege.

Implementing POLP

There are a few steps that should be taken to implement POLP, including:

  • Do an audit, first and foremost. With a privilege audit, you’ll check the accounts as they currently exist, and you also need to look at any programs and processes to determine what level of permission is in place at that moment and how that needs to be changed.
  • From there, build a foundation where all accounts start with least privilege. All new account privileges should be set at the default, which is as low as is possible. The higher-level access credentials should only be added when they’re absolutely needed to perform the necessary functions.
  • Separate the privileges. This means that you’re separating admin accounts from other accounts and those high-level accounts from lower-level ones.
  • You can also add privileges during only specific times. For example, you can provide higher-level credentials for one-time use.
  • Make sure that you can trace the actions of individuals and applications on the network with automatic monitoring and auditing.
  • Go over privileges on a regular basis, and make sure that no one is accumulating privileges they don’t need over time.

Finally, with all this in mind, there’s a term called privilege creep to be aware of. This can happen when the IT team is granting privileges as needed, and that’s why doing regular audits is essential for the principle of least privilege to work. Each time a privilege is added, even though it might be needed at the time, it’s increasing security holes.